More than 15 years ago, I began telling people that the Internet might kill newspapers but that it won't end journalism. A robust, free press remains part of the fabric of our nation, even as we continue to struggle with how to pay for it. Remember, journalism was created to educate, inform, and persuade people, and our nation's first journalists were not writing to please advertisers. Thomas Paine did not write Common Sense as a vehicle to promote furniture discounts, closeout sales, or classifieds. Advertising was a byproduct of journalism, which has, at times, over-shadowed it--but I promise you, journalism will endure.
New York Times reporter David Carr, who covers the media business (and does it very well, by the way) wrote an interesting piece last week that got me thinking. He noted that the Washington Post under new ownership of Jeff Bezos has flourished recently because it bolstered its newsroom after years of staff cuts. The Post is turning out more scoops and generating traction. It's not clear how that's affecting the balance sheet, but the newsroom is healthier than it has been for some time. In 2012, Carr wrote, presciently, that actual news is likely the next "killer app." It's not just the Post; other outlets are looking at real news instead of the puffery that has dominated our social streams of late. (Aside from writing his column, Carr is also featured in an interesting documentary called Page One, which chronicles the Times's transition from print to digital media.)
When the Internet came along and turned the media business on its ear, we watched as print outlets slowly evolved into media companies trying to figure out how to structure their new web-based editions. Do we charge for it? Part of it? Do we give it away?
In the interim, alternative sites popped up, and some drew immense amounts of traffic. The Huffington Post has more visitors than CNN, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. Sites such as Buzzfeed and Mashable have more traffic than, or at least comparable to, the old-school dailies such as the Dallas Morning News and the Miami Herald.
What's new is that these sites--having made most of their living on social shares, content curation, and listicles (those "5 top this" and "10 best that" stories)--are now getting heavily into the "actual news" business, as mentioned by Carr. Mashable's executive editor was formerly with Reuters and the Times; Buzzfeed's editor-in-chief came over from Politico. If you follow Buzzfeed's founder Jonah Peretti on Twitter, you'll notice that he regularly pumps up the website's original reporting, investigations, and scoops. He doesn't trumpet the other top content that currently makes him a lot of money, such as these listicles: 17 Reasons It's Way Better To Date a Dog Person and 60 Ridiculously Pretty Nail Art Designs You'll Want To Copy Immediately.
What these sites have done is to hire real journalists because actual news has originality, relevance, and authenticity. They want content that no else has, that's new, and that has a bit of "unknowness" (that might not be a word), because this type of information has a better chance of driving traffic and virility.
What does this mean for businesses? The answer is the point I have been hammering away at for a while. We need to create new, interesting, and authentic communications for our audiences. We can't just slap our name on the news of the day and call it a blog; and we can't just slap our twist on someone else's work and expect it to make us stand out (as mentioned last time, Google has figured that out and it doesn't work). We have to develop meaningful messaging for our audiences.
What should we do next? Go take a look at the smartest guys in the room. Bezos is artfully doing it at the Post. Peretti, who practically invented social sharing, is doing it at Buzzfeed. They are focusing on news and meaningful, authentic communications.
We're in a race toward actual news and originality in communications. Guys such as Peretti and Bezos are winning, and your race starts now. Go!